E tu, beet root?

The beets go on.

The beets go on.

Ari LeVaux is a nationally syndicated food columnist. Regular RN&R restaurant reviewer Sharon Black is on maternity leave. She’ll be back in March.

The Obama administration struck a blow to freedom in food and agriculture late January, when the USDA deregulated genetically modified (GM) alfalfa seed. The agency’s decision threatens to deprive farmers of the right to produce GM-free milk and meat, and deny consumers the right to purchase it.

Then a week later, on Feb. 4, the USDA did it again, this time by partially deregulating GM sugar beet seed.

Both announcements were great news for Monsanto, which owns both types of GM seeds—and USDA chief Tom Vilsack. Vilsack’s trips on Monsanto corporate jets while governor of Iowa are well documented, and his “Governor of the Year” award from the Biotechnology Industry Association was surely deserved.

The sugar beet move is especially chilling to those harboring fears of a GM planet. The USDA’s deregulation of sugar beet seed defied an order from a San Francisco District Court demanding an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be produced before USDA deregulated the seed.

USDA deregulated it anyway.

Nearly all the beet seed produced in the country—seed for conventional and organic alike, sugar and table beets both—is grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The reason is simple: It’s the nation’s best spot to grow beets (and chard, too, which cross-pollinates with beets). If GM sugar beets are planted in the Willamette Valley, non-GM beet plants will most likely be exposed to GM sugar beet pollen, and growers may be forced out or overtaken, voluntarily or otherwise, by genetically-modified sugar beet DNA.

In the case of alfalfa, even the corporate-rights activist group known as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that deregulated GM alfalfa presented unacceptable risks to the environment, consumers and business. Last summer the court ruled that USDA must complete an EIS before deregulating GM alfalfa seed.

USDA dutifully drafted an EIS, which contained plenty of reasons to be wary of GM alfalfa. The agency then proceeded to ignore these warnings and grant full deregulation to GM alfalfa anyway.

Alfalfa is pollinated by bees, which have a five-mile range. When non-GM alfalfa is pollinated with pollen from GM alfalfa plants, seeds containing the modified DNA sequences are produced. Alfalfa is a perennial that can generate 15,000 seeds a year and live for decades. Once GM pollen is out of the bag, putting it back in would be like repacking Pandora’s box.

The USDA’s deregulation of GM alfalfa and sugar beet seed threatens the rights of those in the agriculture business to produce meat and dairy that’s free of the mark of genetic modification, and all of the unknown possibility that mark entails. Once the first crop of GM alfalfa goes to seed, the prospects of a future with non-GM meat and dairy will dim considerably. And once the GM sugar beets go to seed, finding non-GM beets or chard will become difficult if not impossible.

Those who oppose the planting of GM alfalfa and sugar beet seeds have two significant milestones to consider. The first is preventing the seeds from being planted. If that fails, the next and final chance will be to make sure the plants are destroyed before they flower. After that, once the pollen gets released, game over.

The court system offers the best legal opportunity to achieve one of these defensive stops, and that possibility is real. The Center for Food Safety may be an underdog against Monsanto and USDA, but the nonprofit is, as they say in Vegas, a live dog, and has pulled upsets before, including against the Vilsack USDA. The CFS is active in both GM alfalfa and sugar beet litigation, and contributing to its legal fund probably provides the most bang for your buck. If you’re concerned about genetically modified DNA in your food, it’s time to get to work.